The past couple of years have brought some major changes in the life of Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, a big one being uprooting herself from Portland, Oregon, and moving down south to San Francisco, where she’s happily settled in the Mission District. Just as transformative has been the singer-songwriter’s decision to veer off the solo trail and become part of a team, which explains Thao & Mirah, the just-released collaborative effort that has her joining forces with indie-folk oddball Thao Nguyen.
What might most mark this period of the 36-year-old’s life, however, is the way that she’s finally accepted her calling.
“Ten years ago, I didn’t have any goals or expectations because I never had a plan,” says the artist known to her fans simply as Mirah, on the line from Frisco. “I never planned to do any of this—it never even crossed my mind. I was just moving along and doing what felt natural. Literally, though, in the last year I went, ”˜Huh. I’m a professional musician and I’m going to put every effort into this.’ ”
And a big part of that effort is being open to whatever opportunities happen to come along, such as Mirah teaming up with Nguyen. On paper, the two make an odd couple. Over the course of four accomplished solo full-lengths, Mirah has established herself as one of the great undiscovered talents in the indie underground, her songs falling somewhere between the haunting brilliance of vintage Cat Power and the elegant etherealness of Keren Ann. Inspired by everything from revved-up indie rock to skillet-licking country, Nguyen, on the other hand, has described her own work as “dirty pop”, a label there’s no sense trying to improve on.
The two were introduced to each other by mutual friends shortly after Mirah moved to San Francisco, which led to them playing shows together in the Bay Area and then embarking on a tour.
“The tour was us pulling songs out of our back catalogues and then reworking them in a band situation,” Mirah says. “That was really fun and, I think, very influential in us getting to know each other musically as a way of us preparing to make the album together. Right from when we met, though, it was like we had an automatic musical connection.”
That’s certainly borne out by Thao & Mirah, a dark-horse gem of a disc that finds the two artists teaming up with producer Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. The ultimate triumph of the record is that it sounds like the work of neither Mirah nor Nguyen, not to mention tUnE-yArDs. That’s clear right from the kick-off track, “Eleven”, where the two go all M.I.A.-does-’60s-girl-group against a backdrop of metallic jungle-clatter percussion and buzzing tsetse-fly synths. From there, Nguyen and Mirah veer off in all manner of thrillingly unexpected directions, the two barnstorming alt-country territory on the tub-thumping “Folks”, bringing the superfly funk for “Rubies and Rocks”, and distilling DIY indie-pop down to spine-chillingly gorgeous basics on “Spaced Out Orbit”.
As she should be, Mirah couldn’t be prouder of Thao & Mirah, perhaps because, as part of the ongoing changes that have marked her life, she’s just managed to surprise not only her fans but also herself.
“There are things that show up on this album that I have not done before,” she notes. “I don’t have any songs on previous albums that are Afro-funk jams with horns at the end. So I’m thrilled that I have had the opportunity to have my name associated with something like this. I am an explorer, and I like to try new things.”
Thao & Mirah play the Biltmore Cabaret on Thursday (May 5).